Mexican government on full-blast offensive against workers

Last week, Mexico’s Secretary of Labor and Social Welfare Javier Lozano Alarcon announced a series of legislative proposals which, if approved, would constitute a major blow against Mexican workers and especially embattled independent unions.

The measures presented to a meeting of the Business Coordinating Council will be included in a major legislative vehicle shortly. The government proposes to:

• Give employers the right to government arbitration in strike situations, which only unions have at present. Lozano claims that this will put an end to “eternal strikes”.

• Allow more leeway for employers to hire people part time, for short term periods and in other irregular ways. Lozano says this is merely recognizing the fact that Mexican workers are already being employed in these ways.

• Other measures intended to increase “labor flexibility” and worker productivity, and thus reassure both Mexico’s business elite and foreign investors that the country’s efforts to recover from the heavy blow it received from the world financial meltdown will be carried out at the expense of workers and the poor, and not the rich or foreign corporations.

The announcement comes after one of the worst years in recent Mexican economic history.  During 2009, Mexico lost about 7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.  Both prices of food staples and the unemployment rate have been rising, 28 percent of the working population is in the informal sector, and the amount of money sent to Mexico by its citizens working in the United States has dropped drastically due to the recession here.  A vicious drug war is frightening both tourists and business away, while oil production has been dropping due to the failure of the state owned petroleum company, PEMEX, to modernize its infrastructure.

Oil, tourism and remittances are Mexico’s major sources of foreign exchange.

This disastrous situation is in part caused by the degree to which the Mexican and U.S. economies are intertwined.  For example, the crisis in the U.S. auto industry hit workers in “big three” plants in Mexico especially hard.  The integration of the two economies has been greatly intensified by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the right wing, free trade policies of the current government of President Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (PAN).  The attack on workers needs to be seen in this context.

The connection between the Mexican government’s attack on workers and the drug-related violence is strong though indirect. NAFTA and the overall neo-liberal environment is widely seen as having stimulated the drug trade.  For example, farmers who can’t sell their crops anymore because of NAFTA are tempted to grow cannabis or poppies, or to allow their empty lands to be used by drug gangs. Unemployment for urban people increases crime. Calderon’s plan to try to fight the drug trade with the army is also related to his and his officials’ quasi-fascist mindset; to a man whose only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. Drugs, human trafficking and forced migration are closely related too. When all the SME workers were fired in October, among the retraining classes the government provided to those electrical workers willing to renounce their union were English classes. Many saw this more than a gentle hint.

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, much of organized labor was incorporated into an arrangement comparable to the “corporate state” model of Mussolini’s fascist Italy.  Unions, employers, farmers and professionals were grouped into national federations whose interests were to be mediated by the government and the governing Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). Union demands were tamped down in the name of stability and balanced growth:  Theoretically, neither union members’ wages nor employers’ profits could so outstrip each other as to destabilize development.

But the corporativist unions soon expelled the left and degenerated into partners with employers and the government in suppressing the workers. Both rank and file dissidence and attempts to form unions outside the corporativist setup were countered by harsh government repression and sometimes gangster violence. In 1959 a strike by the militant railway workers union was crushed by troops and police, and a number of top left wing leaders of the union and of the Mexican Communist Party were given long jail sentences.  More recently, attempts to form independent unions in the “maquiladora” operations have been met with violence from goons brought in by the corporativist labor leadership and the employers. First the PRI and now the PAN governments have abetted these practices, which violate the labor clause of the constitution.

Under the Calderon administration, intensified repression has been directed against a number of independent unions:

• The National Mine and Metal Workers Union (SNTMMRM) has been on strike against the operations the multinational corporation Grupo Mexico in Cananea, Sonora since July 2007. The government, which has strong ties to the Grupo Mexico management, has thrown everything it can at the union, and on February 11 the courts ruled that the union contract no longer exists and that Grupo Mexico can fire all 1,200 remaining union members. The SNTMMRM says it will not evacuate the Cananea mine, and a military confrontation may loom.

• Last October, the government seized by force power stations which belonged to the publicly owned Luz y Fuerza del Centro (Central Light and Power), ousting 44,000 members of the renowned independent Mexican Electrical Workers’ Union (SME). The SME is one of the oldest unions in Mexico, having worked with the forces of Emiliano Zapata when that insurgent leader took over Mexico City briefly during the 1910-1920 Revolution. But the government has declared the union as well as Luz y Fuerza to be dissolved, in spite of continuing mass protests by the electrical workers and their allies.

• The latest is an attempt  to crush the independent National Union of Petroleum Technicians and Profesionals (UNyTPP). This union was formed for employees of the national oil company, PEMEX, who were not included in the bargaining unit of the regular petroleum workers’ union, under tight government control since the 1980s. No sooner did the 3,000 member UNyTPP get official recognition, than the PEMEX management began to call its members in one by one to force them to sign letters resigning from, and calling for the cancellation of the union’s recognition. Those who will not sign are fired and removed by force.

Corporativist union leaders, instead of joining a united front against the PAN government’s anti-worker policies, have hastened to attach themselves to it in the same way they were formerly attached to the PRI.  This is why Secretary Lozano Alarcon calls them “serious, responsible and sensitive workers’ organizations which have maintained labor peace” (“Acabar con huelgas eternas” La Jornada, March 15 2010; my translation).

Independent unions represent a danger because they make demands that threaten to destabilize the pacts on which the neo-liberal government is maintained. They are also organizing centers of political opposition to the right wing government, and to imperialism.  The SME is central to coalitions which are fighting for changes in agricultural and trade policies that have led to the impoverishment of millions of Mexican grain farmers and others. One of their major demands is for a renegotiation of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). The future of the Mexican left is linked to the survival and growth of the independent unions and their allies. Surviving independent unions, many grouped in progressive federations like the National Workers Union (UNT) and the Authentic Workers Front (FAT), assume that they are on the short list for extermination, and are girding for battle.

Secretary Lozano Alarcon’s new proposals show that the attacks against the miners, electrical workers, oil workers and others are not just a reaction, as he claims, to “irregularities” within those individual unions, but part of a concerted plan to force all Mexican workers back into corporativist unions, whose leaders will continue to work hand in glove with the big business and that of international monopoly capital.

U.S. labor has been expressing strong solidarity with the Mexican independent unions. The U.S. Steelworkers, United Electrical and Machine Workers (UE) and others have organized solidarity campaigns.  UE updates the situation on its International Solidarity website.

Fortunately, much as Calderon and Lozano may wish, the class struggle can’t be abolished with the stroke of a pen.

Photo: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.